Another indication of the strengthening military relationship between the People’s Republic of China and South Africa was evidenced by a high level visit to SA Air Force (SAAF) headquarters by General Chang Dingqiu, Commander of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLA Air Force).
Dingqiu and his delegation were met on 13 September by CAF, Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo, in furtherance of enhancing and deepening military relations and co-operation between the two air forces. Welcoming the visitors, Mbambo is reported as saying he “was happy” with military developments emanating from August’s BRICS (Brazil/Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Sandton, Johannesburg.
“It took place at the right time,” the three-star is reported as saying by Ad Astra magazine journalist Sergeant Lebogang Ramaboea when he met the Chinese visitors.
Elaborating on Sino/South African military relations, Ramaboea wrote that South Africa and China continue a longstanding association of political and military co-operation, and symbolic of this is the recent engagement with China by Commander-in-Chief of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), President Cyril Ramaphosa, during the G20 Summit, weeks after South Africa hosted the successful 15th BRICS summit where memoranda of understanding (MoU) were signed.
During the BRICS summit President Ramaphosa hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in a celebration of 25 years of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and South Africa. Jinping and Ramaphosa also co-chaired the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue in Johannesburg.
Dingqiu is reported as saying: “We need to improve our areas of co-operation as well in military training and other aspects which we will identify during this visit. At the moment I know we have seven students currently in China from South Africa.” He added they will be benchmarking with the SAAF in relation to search and rescue operations and was reportedly impressed by the large area of operations the SAAF covers at sea.
On Dingqiu’s agenda was a briefing and overview of South Africa’s military aviation as well as visits to various SAAF bases and units and a courtesy call to Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise.
Mbambo briefed the six-strong Chinese delegation on the airspace aspirations the SAAF is exploring and Dingqiu invited the local air force to propose areas where they might need assistance. He said the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force is willing to assist where it can.
Dingqiu’s visit came just weeks after the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Hu Zhongming, paid a courtesy call to SA Navy (SAN) Chief Vice Admiral Monde Lobese at Naval Headquarters in Pretoria.
The visit was part of an official PLAN visit South Africa from 29 August to 1 September. The courtesy call strengthened relations between the navies, the SAN said. The SAN and the PLAN previously engaged in joint naval exercises including Exercise Mosi, a multilateral exercise including Russia.
The PLA Vice Admiral’s visit was preceded by that of PLAN frigate CNS Sanya (pennant number 574, a Type 054A warship). She was alongside at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront on 24 July for three days as part of the Chinese PLAN 43rd Escort Task Force along with guided-missile destroyer Nanning (162) and the supply ship Weishanhu (887).
In June, Chief of the SANDF, General Rudzani Maphwanya, was in Beijing where he met with China’s defence minister General Li Shangfu to discuss strengthening military-to-military relations.
China’s military ties with South Africa go back decades, as China supported the African National Congress (ANC) in its fight against apartheid, with the first batch of six uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) fighters going to China for military training in November 1961. As a consequence of this support during the liberation era, South Africa recognised the People’s Republic of China in January 1998 ending formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
In recent years South African-China defence co-operation increased notably. In June 2014, for example, three vessels comprising the 16th Escort Task Group of the Chinese PLA Navy visited Cape Town and subsequently numerous naval task groups stopped in the Cape. This culminated in the first multinational maritime exercise (known in South Africa as Exercise Mosi) between China, Russia and South Africa in November 2019.
Also in recent years, high-level PLA delegations visited South Africa, with reciprocal visits by SANDF personnel to China as a result of a RSA/PRC Defence Committee meeting in August 2018 in Beijing where it was agreed China would endeavour to gain further knowledge regarding defence technology development and joint operations support training in South Africa.